You might be surprised to hear that on a recent visit to Amsterdam I stayed at a hotel built on struts over the Central Station tracks. Now, I know I should really be telling you about some little gem of a place I unearthed on a hidden canal. But for a time-pressed train fan from London, it was spot on. Just a 17-minute shuttle from the airport and I was checking in.
I awoke (yes, I slept soundly) to fantastic views of the harbour. Boats cruised back and forth, before a backdrop of the new Eye Film Museum. Best of all, I watched trains zooming off all over Europe below my feet.
One morning I leapt on one and sped back in time to the town of Haarlem. I wandered through narrow, cobbled lanes with gabled houses covered in flowers. Almost all had seats outside, where I could picture neighbours gathering of an evening to chat. The bells of St Bavo’s church chimed out the hour and I half expected to glimpse guildsmen from the paintings in the Frans Hals Museum strutting along in their ruffs and buckled shoes.
My goal was the Holland’s oldest museum, the Teylers, where you feel the spirit of the Enlightenment the second you push open its giant door. Many of its displays remain untouched since it opened in 1784, in original wooden cases lit by daylight only and with captions in spidery handwriting. As I stepped from its fossil gallery, with its huge mammoth skulls, through to rooms with globes and armillary spheres, I was swept up in the 18th-century quest for knowledge and discovery.
Now, I know nothing about paleobiology, electromagnetism or mineralogy. But I quickly got into the spirit and felt like an early explorer poking around and coming up with ‘finds’. The curious jumble led from bones that showed the evolution of horses’ jaws to a piece of rock from the peak of Mont Blanc. Faded cases with obscure objects yielded fascinating stories when I found out what they were.
All this was in a wonderful architectural ensemble, purpose-designed to showcase the treasures at their best. It was made possible by the bequest of one Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, a merchant and financier whose portrait, complete with curly wig and quill pen, hangs on one of the walls. In addition to science and nature, Teyler was fond of art. He also financed a collection of paintings and an exceptional portfolio of drawings that includes works by Rembrandt and Italian masters. These are displayed in more modern, 19th-century style.
I had planned to spend an hour or so at the Teylers but ended up staying half a day. Afterwards, I ordered a strong coffee at a cafe just outside the museum and watched boats cruising beneath a pretty bridge. It took me a second cup to come back to the 21st century again.
I stayed at the Ibis Amsterdam Centre Hotel. Trains run every 10 minutes or so between Amsterdam and Haarlem, with a journey time of around 15 minutes. The Teylers has a programme of regular exhibitions. Next up from 28 September to 19 January are Rembrandt drawings and etchings. An excellent audio guide in English relates the stories behind the objects in a really engaging way.